"#2 spicy noodles" at Mom's Hand Restaurant in the Komart is not only the tiny food stall's best-selling item, it's also one of the best bowls of Asian noodles in town. For six dollars, you get a huge bowl filled with chunky round homemade rice noodles mixed with chopped octopus, squid and shrimp, all submerged in a fiery red chile pepper and seafood broth, topped with a garnish of kimchee.
Mom's Hand is a mother-and-daughter operation, one of four walk-up restaurants, or food stalls, inside the Komart, a Korean food store on Gessner just north of the Katy Freeway. Each operation has its own specialty. Mom's is the one that's farthest from the store's front door, and it serves homemade Korean-style noodles and dumplings. If you prefer your noodles without the hot chiles, you should order the #3 not-so-spicy noodles, I was told by the young Korean woman who works in the stall.
The stall to the left of Mom's Hand is called Soondae House; it specializes in soondae, which is a Korean blood sausage, a delicacy I have yet to try. Two stalls down is an unnamed operation owned by the Komart store itself that specializes in the rice-and-vegetable mix-up called bibimbap. The fourth stall is named Japanese Kitchen and Noodle Deli; it sells sushi rolls, tempura and other Japanese-Korean favorites.
There are a bunch of tables and chairs set up in front of the food stalls where you can sit down and eat. The customers are almost entirely Korean.
If you like Korean food, the Komart "food court" is a great deal. If you want to see the place in full swing, go for lunch on a Saturday like I did on my first visit. The store was mobbed and the tables were around three-fourths occupied. My two tablemates and I got a wide assortment of dishes and then sat down to try it all out. The Koreans at the table were impressed by our appetites. We started talking about food and ended up learning a little about Korean culture.
A lady with an entire shopping cart full of Korean turnips told us that this was the time of year when Koreans start pickling for the winter. She and a couple of her friends were making kimchee and other fermented pickled vegetables this weekend, she said. The radishes would be peeled and sliced, brined, put in a barrel and buried in the ground, she told us.
Each of the food stalls has a purified-water machine in front of it, but after a while, I got tired of drinking water and set off in search of a beer. I found all sorts of canned Asian beverages and even some sake, but either Komart doesn't sell beer, or I didn't know where to look. I settled for a cold bottle of Diet Coke I found in a refrigerator case.
Our Korean feast started with some sesame chicken wings from Mom's Hand. They were sitting out on the counter in a plastic wrapped package, so we asked them to heat them up for us. The wings were decent, although the microwave reduced the sweet and spicy coating to a syrupy glop.
The bizarre-looking rice noodle cakes were interesting. They come on a long stick in a bowl of broth. They have very little flavor of their own, but they soak up the soup like a big rice dough sponge. We also sampled the seafood and scallion pancake (pajun) from Mom's Hand. It was dense with shrimp and squid, and yet the egg mixture stayed fluffy. The flavor was outstanding, but unfortunately, the pancake was difficult to eat. When you picked up a pizza-shaped slice, it fell apart on the way to your mouth.
We also got a big bowl of dol sot bibimbap. The word "bibimbap" means "rice hash" in Korean. Dol sot is a version that comes in a heated stone bowl. There's rice on the bottom topped with an assortment of lightly cooked vegetables. Topping options include strips of meat and a fried egg. You add hot sauce, if desired, and then mix the whole thing together, scraping up the bottom with a long spoon. The rice on the bottom of the stone bowl gets crunchy and provides a chewy texture. The longer you let it sit, the crunchier the rice gets.
Bibimbap is very popular among vegetarians. It was the food of the moment in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, because it's so healthy. Personally, I find it boring. It is, after all, a bowl of rice and vegetables. Granted, the addition of a fried egg, some strips of meat and a whole lot of hot sauce helps the wimpy flavor profile, but in truth, I would prefer the bacon and eggs without the rice salad. The crusty texture makes the dol sot bibimbap at Komart exceptionally tasty for bibimbap.
The best thing about the bibimbap for my money was the smoked radish garnish that came with it. The deep brown vegetables had a smoky, salty flavor. They tasted more like smoked ribs than radishes. Whoever came up with the idea of smoking radishes was a world-class genius. There would certainly be a lot more vegetables in my diet if more of them were barbecued like this.
The crunchy fried pot stickers called yakimando were also a big hit. I am guessing they are filled with a pork and turnip green mixture, but it was the dumpling skin that was remarkable. It has little blisters on it like the McDonald's fried apple pies used to get, back when Mickey D's fried pies. (I think they are baked now.) The skin is very crisp on the outside and tender and chewy where it touches the filling.
The tempura plates from Japanese Kitchen and Noodle Deli come in $5 and $7 sizes. You can get all shrimp, all vegetables or shrimp and vegetables mixed. We got the $7 mixed tempura, and it was sensational. After burning our fingers trying to eat the shrimp before it cooled, we finally got a bite and burned our mouths instead. The batter on each piece was exceedingly crunchy, and the shrimp inside was succulent. The crispy onion rings were greaseless and heavenly. The tempura green beans were batter-crunchy on the outside and bean-crunchy on the inside.
Some of the best food I have ever eaten in Asia was supplied by street vendors. The street vendors are called pojangmacha in Korea, and they are very popular. The rice dishes, tempura, fried dumplings and noodles sold by the four little independent restaurants in the Komart store are very close to the fare offered by the street vendors of suburban Seoul.
There are lots of great Korean restaurants in Houston where you can cook your own bulgogi at a barbecue table or sit in a private dining area. The Korean restaurants also offer a much wider variety of dishes. But the stalls at the Komart are a Houston version of Asian street vendors. And that's why I love to eat there.